Sonny Smith’s Festival Promotes Young Bands

His Orinda Rocks in Your Head Festival is named for his new record label through which Smith plans to promote up-and-coming bands.


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Galore, above, is one of the bands performing at the festival.

Photo by Bobby Martinez

Sonny Smith has a wide-open, artistic soul. He’s played piano in blues bars, lived on a commune in Costa Rica, written a music column for a local newspaper, directed indie films, composed songs, and led one of the Bay Area’s most eclectic bands, Sonny and the Sunsets. After making 14 albums for various indie labels — solo and with The Sunsets — Smith has decided to start his own label, Rocks in Your Head Records.

“I’m starting a label because I don’t want to go into windmill repair,” Smith quipped. “I do know how to make records, and I’ve been hearing music I like, and bands I like — very young bands. I’d like to see if I can make a few things happen for them.”

Smith, a San Franciscan, will be the label’s main producer, a job with its own unique kind of stress. “Artists have a vision they can’t always explain, so you’re often trying to satisfy something that isn’t very understandable. Letting go is hard for artists. It always has been for me. You can easily resent someone who made you let go of something, if you didn’t want to. It’s a slippery position, but there’s a lot of victory in it as well, a lot of happiness.”

Smith envisions a musical version of City Lights Books, an organization that will help boost the profile of a local scene that’s been diminished by the tech boom. “I want to look at my neighbors and my own backyard,” he said. “City Lights was a different time, a different era, but I like the fact that [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti made it. He was an artist himself and made it by backing his pals, in his own city.

“Nothing from tech has helped society or humanity. Has it reduced greed and hate? No. Has it helped the environment? No. Has it helped the arts and culture? No. Our tech era is the equivalent of the suburbs, powdered milk, microwaves, and TV in the 1950s. People thought those things were solutions, too, but they weren’t. It’s almost impossible to be a functioning band in the Bay Area.”

Smith will be introducing his new label, and some of the Oakland bands he’s producing, at the first Rocks in Your Head Festival. Shannon Shaw, from Shannon and The Clams, will be doing a solo set, with the Rays, Younger Lovers, hip-hop artist Jay Stone, and a few San Francisco bands filling out the bill. The shindig will take place at the California Shakespeare Amphitheater in Orinda. “My original vision was to throw a festival solely for the homeless,” he said. “There would be music, free food, services, and all that, excluding people who made over a certain income. The reverse of how festivals are run now. I still want to, but it’s hard in the Bay Area. There’s so much money and greed and selfishness standing in the way of doing good, interesting things. I’m hoping this festival will bring a little bit of positivity to the scene.”

Rocks in Your Head Festival, Sat., July 27, 1-11 p.m., California Shakespeare Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, no prices yet, CalShakes.org.

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